A basket of Munro scattered to the winds

I found her by chance years ago while browsing in the Rondebosch library where some excellent librarian had seen to it that each successive collection of her stories was on the fiction shelf under M and with a large SS for short stories on the spine – the latter partly a warning to those daft folk who profess not to like short stories.

Or did profess. There are so many excellent short-story writers these days that to refuse to read them would really be self-defeating. So the recognition of Munro’s excellence must benefit all those intrepid South African writers who have continued to write short stories despite the previous (hopefully waning) prejudice against them: Liesl Jobson, Shaun de Waal, Henrietta Rose-Innes, David Medalie and Siphiwo Mahala, inter many alia.

Of her 14 collections of stories my favourite title is Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. My first copy of this book is roaming I know not where after it met with a strange misadventure and was inadvertently "kidnapped".

It was lent to friends, who were for years the only other readers, in this rural backwater, of the Mail & Guardian.

After years of development work they were back in the Transkei for a holiday, with a load of baskets for the friend’s shop in the back of the bakkie, and packed in one of the baskets all the books they had borrowed to read. While they were waiting for a red robot to change in central Mthatha, the back of the bakkie was suddenly opened and people absconded in all directions with the baskets. And my Alice Munro!

I do wonder what has become of it, and who has read it since. I’d love to think it has made its way to a public library, or has been scooped up for a book club.

The title story tells of an orphan girl-become-housekeeper who is stirred to improve her situation late in life by entirely spiteful letters written by a bored 14-year-old. Comfort concerns an atheist biology teacher, with a rich, intense life, who dies of a terminal illness shortly after he is subjected to increasing harassment by creationists in his small town.

Munro’s stories range across many lives, all in Ontario, where most South Africans will never set foot, nor wish to, yet they will recognise themselves and others as she looks at the whole human experience within domestic and mainly small-town settings: childhood, marriage, death; and kindness, stultifying mind-sets, decency.

The extraordinary quality of these stories is their combination of simplicity – a clear, easy tone and pace, almost mundane – with the gradual accumulation of detail. They are like poems, but easier to get into, and often as long as 30 pages.

However, though Munro subtly observes how people hide from each other, preserve reticences and tread carefully, she does not flinch from horse slaughter and other such visceral realities. The real flavour of her work comes through in lines such as these: "… she had taken the precaution of not speaking to Sabitha first, before Sabitha could not speak to her." And "[Ranger] was an old dog by this time and had never been indiscriminately fond of children".

If you have not yet read Munro, now’s the time to do it. Like the basket thieves, you’ll be getting much more than you bargained for.

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Jane Rosenthal
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